10 Lifestyle Hacks for Kidney Health
Keeping Your Blood Filters Clean
Most people can roughly tell you where your kidneys are located and that they have something to do with urine output – but know little else. So let’s start with the basics.
The kidney is a bean shaped organ roughly the size of your fist. While people can live a healthy life with just one kidney, this organ is so vital we have two – located vertically near the middle of your back to each side of your spine, protected by your lower ribs.
What makes the kidney so vital to life? Our body has many 'built in' filters to remove unwanted items from our system, and the kidneys are incredibly efficient blood filters. They work day and night filtering about ½ cup of blood every minute. Your entire blood volume is filtered around 25 times each day and for every 200L of blood filtered, they remove about 2L of trash (waste) and excess water. Your kidneys are made up of tiny filters (over 1 million per kidney) called nephrons. Through a complicated process the nephrons both filter trash from your blood and enrich your blood with needed nutrients. The clean, enriched blood flows from your kidneys to your heart while the trash and excess water are eventually disposed of in the form of urine.
Your kidneys also control the amount of liquid in your body by directly regulating the amount of water in your blood. If you are not drinking enough water, your kidneys will conserve water by producing urine that is concentrated. Alternatively, they can remove excess water by producing weak urine. Ideally the amount of water you excrete is equal to the amount of water you consume.
Electrolytes – as the name implies, are what cells use to maintain electrical charge internally and to carry electrical impulses (nerve impulses, muscle contractions) across themselves and to other cells. If the electrical charges cannot be maintained cells are unable to function. Thus, the amount and composition of electrolytes in your blood is vital to cellular health. Extreme electrolyte variation causes cells to shrink or swell, damaging or destroying cellular structure and disrupting normal cellular function. The electrolytes most vital to remain tightly regulated are sodium, potassium, phosphorus and calcium. Your kidneys work to keep concentrations of electrolytes in your blood constant despite changes in your body.
We all know the importance of keeping a healthy blood pressure. Your kidneys regulate your blood pressure through regulation of water levels and electrolytes. They can regulate the actual physical volume of blood in your body which correlates directly with blood pressure. More blood volume results in higher blood pressure. Additionally, your kidneys can release a hormone called rennin which not only causes the kidneys to retain more sodium and water, but also causes your blood vessels to constrict thereby raising blood volume and pressure. Your kidneys also produce a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO). EPO signals the marrow inside your bones to make red blood cells, which then carry oxygen throughout your body.
We get our Vitamin D from two potential sources; sun exposure or intake from food and supplements. Not all vitamin D sources or forms are equal, with some being easier for your body to convert than others. Your kidneys are responsible for converting vitamin D from food, supplements or the sun to an active form that your body needs.
Unfortunately, these hard-working vital organs are susceptible to illness. The two major kidney conditions are kidney stones and chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Kidney stones are hard (stone-like) deposits of minerals that form in your kidneys. Passing kidney stones through your urinary tract can be quite painful, but the stones usually cause no permanent damage if caught early enough. If your stones are not caught early or become lodged somewhere in your urinary tract, surgery to remove them is often required.
CKD often goes undiagnosed until it is quite advanced, requiring dialysis (external machine blood filtration) or kidney transplant. The tests for CKD are simple and if caught early CKD can be monitored and managed to limit if not halt its progression. The tests are; Blood Pressure, Urinary Protein, Blood Creatinine and Glomerular Filtration Rate. CKD is a serious condition because your kidneys regulate so many things; having them damaged can cause other life threatening issues such as cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, weak bones, nerve damage and chronic anemia.
There are 3 main risk factors for CKD, all of which have a hereditary link (yourself, family member or family history);
-High blood pressure
These 3 risk factors combine to cover nearly 100% of the population, so we need to focus on reducing risk through things we can control.
As always there is a strong lifestyle component to disease prevention. Kidney disease is no exception. Here are 10 lifestyle hacks to consider:
Keep blood sugar & blood pressure in check – The roller coaster of sugar highs and lows most of us are on each day is hard on your kidneys. Dramatic swings in blood sugar as well as high blood pressure can damage the blood vessels in your kidneys reducing their ability to function.
Keep salt intake within guidelines – Most people consume far too much salt, on average twice the recommended maximum intake level. It is recommended to take less than 5 grams per day for adults (a little less than 1 teaspoon).
Avoid NSAID pain killers (i.e. ibuprofen, naproxen, and high dose aspirin). Instead try healthier alternatives; turmeric, yoga, physiotherapy, acupressure, acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy.
Be careful with high protein. Despite the protein craze you can get too much of a good thing. High protein intake can be hard on your kidneys, accelerating damage in people who have kidney disease. If your kidneys are 100% ship shape, high protein should not harm them.
Drink plenty of pure clean water. Dehydration is very hard on your kidneys. Ensure that you drink liquids that don’t tax your kidneys. Clean water and herbal tea are your best bet. Avoid chemical laced drinks (soda, energy drinks, and sugary drinks).
Kidney stones are primarily composed of calcium oxalate. Your kidneys form these stones from components in your diet. One way to reduce your risk is to skip cheap calcium supplements (that end up in your kidneys). Instead choose an organic calcium supplement of high quality where the calcium stays in you and doesn’t end up in your urinary system.
Aloe vera and cranberry extract can each help to reduce urinary tract calcium levels.
Eating a healthy well rounded diet rich in whole foods and exercising regularly will both help to prevent CKD and help you keep a healthy weight while keeping blood sugar and blood pressure in check, all of which will also help prevent CKD.
Avoid all sources of smoke (smoking yourself, second hand smoke and engine exhaust) as the chemicals in smoke can irritate and damage your kidneys.
Ensure if you drink alcohol it is in moderation. Excessive alcohol can cause kidney disease.
There is disagreement when kidney cleansing is important. If you consume adequate clean fluids, which can take the form of foods such as fruits and vegetables as well as water and other liquids, the kidneys are self-cleansing. If you don’t there may be benefit to periodic cleansing. Most importantly, ensure you see your doctor and get the tests performed as part of your annual check-up. Like many conditions early detection is key to management and good health.
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.